Mardi Gras is canceled. So say the authorities. Bourbon Street is also “closed,” but have you seen it lately?
It’s happened before. Many times, in fact. In 1918 and ’19, during World War l. (And coincidentally, during the Spanish flu pandemic.) Then again between 1942 and ’45 for World War ll. Then in 1951 for the Korean War. Then, in 1979, for a New Orleans Police union strike.
That one happened anyway, though.
It was five years before I would move to New Orleans, but it was my older brother Richard’s third year in a row here for Carnival. I was in high school and he used to bring back beads for me and I was both mystified and confused by it all.
What was this thing about?
He also brought back Meters and Neville Brothers records and they changed my world view. Listening to the “Cissy Strut,” “Dancing Jones,” “Washable Ink” and “Vieux Carre Rouge” blew my mind. It was inevitable that I would end up here.
That year of the strike, 1979, it was as peaceful as any celebration could be. My brother and his annual friends, they created some gang or posse or krewe or some such thing, anointed his friend Danny as the King and they pushed him around the city in a wheel barrow and he waved a stick in the air.
Times were so much simpler then.
When I finally did move to New Orleans, in the summer of 1984, the Neville Brothers played every Wednesday night at Sheila’s Australian bar at the World’s Fair. The day rate for the Fair was $17, which locals found astounding and offensive. But at 10 p.m. every night, the gate fee dropped to four bucks.
I was usually standing at the gate there by 9:50 every Wednesday night. Rushed to Sheila’s, sat on the floor with my legs crossed in a room with about 40 other people and washed my sins away listening to the Brothers. I was under the mistaken impression that this is what life would always be like in New Orleans. The Neville Brothers playing every week in an empty room for four bucks.
Obviously that didn’t turn out to be the case. But it was the summer of my life, newly reborn and baptized into New Orleans, forever changed.
Iko Iko and all that.
You can take the Mardi Gras out of New Orleans, but you can’t take the New Orleans out of Mardi Gras. So this year, we must sit it out. It’s important and correct. So that we’re all alive to celebrate again the next year.
Parades and floats, bands and beads, wheelbarrows and sticks. Whatever it takes. But we’ve got to get there together.
So, c’mon people now, smile on your brother. Stay safe. Stay inside. And if there’s anything we all know how to do this time of year, it’s wear a mask.
So this year, please, do.